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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2009 / 07 

Summer research program focuses on diversity, science of human computer interaction

July 21, 2009

(Left to right) Denis Gracanin, an associate professor of computer science; Ji-Sun Kim, a graduate school in Virginia Tech's computer science department and a mentor to the undergraduate students participating in the summer research program; and Felicia Osborne, Tavon Gatling, Erik Irvin-Williams, Arthur Billingsley, and Roosevelt Cooper, participating undergraduate students, discuss the Virginia Tech Solar Decathlon house. The solar-powered house is designed to respond to climactic changes and user
(Left to right) Denis Gracanin, an associate professor of computer science; Ji-Sun Kim, a graduate school in Virginia Tech's computer science department and a mentor to the undergraduate students participating in the summer research program; and Felicia Osborne, Tavon Gatling, Erik Irvin-Williams, Arthur Billingsley, and Roosevelt Cooper, participating undergraduate students, discuss the Virginia Tech Solar Decathlon house. The solar-powered house is designed to respond to climactic changes and user

Undergraduate students from several colleges across Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere recently finished a summer internship program with the Virginia Tech Center for Human-Computer Interaction, working on research projects that could whet their appetite for graduate school.

Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) programs – sponsored by the National Science Foundation -- are popular across the nation, and appear in several formats at Virginia Tech. In the program, undergraduate students showing an interest in graduate school are paired with a university faculty member and work during the summer for a block of several weeks on a particular research project.

The program differs itself from other REUs because of its focus on diversity, bringing students from predominately black or female universities in Virginia and North Carolina to Virginia Tech. Scott McCrickard, an associate professor in computer science, and Woodrow Winchester III, an assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, formed the summer program in 2006.

Partner schools in the program include Bennett College, North Carolina A&T State University, Hollins University, and Norfolk State University, with some other schools participating on a less frequent scale. Virginia Tech undergraduate students also participate. It’s this multi-university partnership distinction that sets the REU program apart from others.

“The partner schools set our program apart -- particularly partnering with multiple minority-serving institutions,” McCrickard said. “I’ve seen some pairings of schools, but nothing else on our scale.”

Winchester himself is a three-time graduate of A&T, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering, and doctoral degree in industrial and systems engineering-human machine systems engineering from the university.

Some participants – there are 25 this year – hail from India, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Students are given housing on campus, meals, and a stipend, with funding coming from the National Science Foundation, Virginia Tech, or other sources such as foundations and educational programs. Several faculty members from the four partner universities also have teamed with Virginia Tech faculty on research projects.

The program also is distinguished because of its dedication to human computer interaction, a far-ranging science mapping out how people interact with computers and other technologies. If you’ve use a laptop, digital coffee maker or programmed the radio in your new car, you’ve dabbled with human computer interaction science.

This year’s research projects include everything from creating an i-Phone application to control the utilities of a futuristic house, and early lab work that could place computer graphics and fonts on the glass of car windshields and eyewear. All of the projects fall under the realm of Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction, while touching far ranging topics of music, English, and dairy farming.

McCrickard and Winchester call the program a win-win situation not only for Virginia Tech itself, but the participating students as well. Dozens of Virginia Tech faculty members normally have summer research projects, and need research assistants to help complete that work.

Often, funding or availability of graduate students is not at the ready, or an additional assistant is needed. The program provides that help in the form of undergraduate students who generally – but not exclusively – are women and/or are from under-represented minority groups within the field of engineering.

Participants who enjoy the experience may decide to proceed with graduate school at Virginia Tech, or another university depending upon their preference for location, size, and program. “Some find out that graduate school is not for them,” McCrickard added. “It’s better to know as an undergraduate then as after you’re a graduate student.”

“It’s been a really good program,” said Erik Irvin-Williams, a junior majoring in computer science at Norfolk State. “I’m learning things about graduate school that I didn’t know about. In the past, I had thought about graduate school, but I did not know how to look for a graduate school or know how to find out about a graduate school.”

Nudging Williams toward graduate school is the belief that he will earn more money with a better degree once he enters the work force. Although the program – which he calls well organized --hasn’t definitively solidified Williams’ choice to attend graduate school, it “has swayed [his] decision.”

Williams is helping to write an interface software program for an i-Phone application that would help control the solar panels and additional system on the Virginia Tech Solar Decathlon house. Work has been done on ease of use, how the application’s function would connect to the server built into the home that controls those same functions, and how the commands can be made from outside the home.

“If I go to graduate school, I have to say this program has helped me decide that I would definitely apply to Virginia Tech. This is one of the graduate schools that I would go to,” said Williams, who is from Pittsburgh.

Jason Zedlitz, a senior from Sacramento majoring in industrial and systems engineering, already was interested in graduate school before joining this summer’s REU program. “If the first experience in research was this program, I would say that I would have probably been very influenced to go to grad school,” he said. “My first research experience was similar to this and was partly responsible for my motivation. With that said, I would say that REU did help me explore different options that would have been very difficult on my own.”

Zedlitz is working on a project headed by Joe Gabbard, a senior research associate with the Virginia Tech Center for Human-Computer Interaction, that one day could put computer graphics – fonts, images, even facial-recognition data -- on anything from car windshields to goggles and eyeglasses

When a participating student opts for graduate school, “[i]t really demonstrates that the program is working -- facilitating the connections, providing the experiences and exposures that allow students to craft and explore their research interests,” Winchester said.

The roster of 25 students is the program’s highest turnout in its four-year history. Part of the reason: The slow economy pushed companies and other institutions to cut back on summer job hiring or internships, which, in turn, funneled some of these students into such summer programs to gain research experience. This has raised the level of knowledge among this year’s batch of students, Winchester said.

At a July 16 symposium, student participants presented white papers and posters on their research work to faculty and staff from Virginia Tech and their university.

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